Baldwin v Buckley

It doesn’t matter who wins this debate, the competition is the least interesting thing about it.

I haven’t read as much James Baldwin as I should have. I had a vague notion of him and the importance of his work, but that didn’t prepare me for this. And I’m glad for that, because without any expectations I could get the thrill of watching his mind work for the first time.

His argument starts in the way you would expect, with an emotional and moral appeal grounded in his own experience. But that’s just the foundation, because he then takes a hard left turn which thrilled me. The “expense” is, after all, not the human cost of the enslaved and segregated, but the moral cost and depravity of the enslaver. America is made lesser, weaker, and less righteous by slavery and segregation. I’m ashamed this has never occurred to me.

Buckley, who I thought I was pretty familiar with, is just appalling. I knew he was going to be arrogant and condescending, that’s his thing. I wasn’t prepared, though, for just how tone-deaf and callous he would be. His argument flails from revolutionary straw men to appeals to futility: “what would you have us do?” When he turns to the house and implicates them in his own moral compromise, it’s very uncomfortable.

To this point, I thought he was playing a role, creating a caricature that would apologize for the position he’s forced to defend. No such luck. He proceeds to insert his own convictions, and mounts this monstrous libertarian argument that hinges on a plainly false equivalence between the experience of the enslaved with that of the immigrant. It’s ugly, and the house knows it.

All that said, I love the spectacle of this. The decorum, the nuanced arguments, the ritual, and all on television! For everything mobile phone, cable, and the internet have given us, it can’t give us a debate like this. It’s hard not to feel like the quality of public debate has diminished forever. Yes, this was Cambridge. Yes, this was public television in the UK. Still, TED talks, blogs, and Twitter snark are a poor substitute for two intelligent people being forced to think on their feet in front of other people.

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